Celt (kĕlt, sĕlt) [key] or Kelt kĕlt. 1 One who speaks a Celtic language or who derives ancestry from an area where a Celtic language was spoken; i.e., one from Ireland, the Scottish Hebrides and Highlands, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, or Brittany. 2 A member of a group of peoples first found in SW Germany and E France early in the 2d millennium B.C., but perhaps much older than that. The Celts were a group of tribes speaking Indo-European dialects. Armed with iron weapons and mounted on horses, they spread rapidly over Europe, crossing into the British Isles, moving S over France, Italy, and Spain, fighting the Macedonians, and penetrating into Asia Minor, where they raided Hellenistic centers. The Celts introduced the newly developed iron industries. Their wealth from trade and from raiding helped to maintain their dominance over Central Europe during the Iron Age. The La Tène culture developed among the Celts. Greek influences that stimulated Celtic culture included the introduction of the chariot and of writing. Art flourished in richly ornamented styles. The Celts lived in semifortified villages, with a tribal organization that became increasingly hierarchical as wealth was acquired. Priests, nobles, artisans, and peasants were clearly distinguished, and the powers of the chief became kinglike. The Celts believed in a demonic universe and relied on the ministry of the druids. Much Western European folklore is derived from the Celts. By the 4th cent. B.C. they could no longer withstand the encroaching Germanic tribes, and they lost most of their holdings in the north and in W Germany. From that time on, Celtic history becomes confused with that of the many unsettled tribes in Europe. Celtic language and culture were variously dispersed among peoples of little historical identity, and until the 20th cent. historians obscured the very important differences among these groups by naming them all Celts. Further confusion has resulted from the designation of the Celts as a racial group. To the Greeks and Romans, the Celts were tall, muscular, and light-skinned, but it is believed that these were qualities of the Celt warriors rather than Celts in general. The term Celtic is actually a cultural one, unrelated to physical heredity. It implies a cultural tradition maintained through many centuries of common history in the same general area. See also Iron Age.
See N. Chadwick, The Celts (1970); D. Adam, The Edge of Glory: Prayers in the Celtic Tradition (1988); A. McBain, Celtic Mythology and Religions (1988).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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